The other day, I was in a room full of teachers who, in a
fit of poor judgment, had asked me to do a workshop on learning
fractions. I assigned a problem on
fraction division and was walking around the room listening to teachers’
conversations as they made sense of the problem. I just chanced to hear one teacher mutter, “God I hate
Now, those of you who know me understand that I cannot pass
up an opportunity to confront issues of motivation whenever they come up. “Hold on!” I stopped the conversation,
“Why do you hate division by fractions so much? Where did this come from?”
Sheepishly, the teacher reflected on the years of
frustration she had had in her mathematical experiences, and how she just
inverted and multiplied to get the correct answer. She was frustrated that I was forcing her to try the
problems without this familiar (and useful, to be truthful) procedure, and
projected that this experience was similar to all those demoralizing experiences
she had growing up.
This was a shocker.
My intent was not to frustrate the teachers (too much…). My intent was
to get them to work through the problems from the perspective of a 5th
grader, without their adult knowledge of fractions to support them. Well, I got what I had asked for. This teacher, upon feeling frustrated,
began to develop what researchers call “situational interest.” But, like her 5th
graders, her situational interest was negative instead of positive. This struck home to me, that whenever a
person is engaged in some difficult mathematical task, they learn both the
content—how to divide by fractions and how to think about models that use
iterative units to compare one fraction to another—and the motivation—in this
case that division by mathematics was frustrating and non-interesting.
I brought this up and used it as an opportunity to reflect
on the learning of my teachers’ students.
How do students react when presented with challenging tasks? Do they relish the challenge? Do they feel frustrated and upset? Why would two children from the same
classroom react in different ways to ostensibly the same task? We used the fraction division task the
teachers were engaging in as an example.
Some teachers said that they enjoyed trying new ways to solve the
problem and that doing so gave them new insight into the mathematics and
especially into children’s mathematics.
Some, like my frustrated teacher, really disliked the task and felt it
did them no good. And some
disliked the task but felt that it was important to engage in it so that they
would be better prepared for their students’ reaction to both content and
Our conversation brought up three key motivational patterns
that each of us sees every day.
Some students are right in line with our instruction, learning and
liking it—feeling successful, relishing the challenge, and persevering through
the frustration. These students
appear Intrinsically Motivated, and
these positive behaviors show it. Some
students just don’t like the task. For whatever reason, they don’t see it as an
interest, and don’t see the utility of it. These students need some social
motivation or even some reward or contingency to help them engage and even have
the possibility of gaining interest in the task. They appear to be Extrinsically Motivated. The third group of students plug along,
not too excited, but on board motivationally because they see the mathematics
as being Useful to them. These students appear to have learning
goals and positive self-regulation strategies that help them stay engaged even
when they personally don’t like the activity.
In reality, all classrooms exhibit these three patterns
(even professional development workshops that I run). To be honest, each of us exhibits these patterns for
different activities in our lives.
A key challenge for us as teachers is to recognize that each pattern has
its own adaptive advantages to the children (or adults…) and that different
pedagogical approaches will help students engage and succeed.
Like we say in our book, there are no quick fixes. Motivating students requires knowing
about the sources of students’ likes and dislikes, goals and aspirations, and
their predilections. Armed with
this knowledge, a teacher can tailor their instruction to the needs of each of
her/his students a little bit better each day.
Back to our story. Because we stopped and discussed my teacher's frustration in a matter of fact way, with no blame assigned to her, collectively we helped the teacher overcome her frustration and re-define her motivation to include the usefulness of the task for reaching her students who were having difficulty understanding how one can divide a smaller number by a larger number and how to expand their operation sense to include fractions in this scheme. She still didn't much like the task, but the overall activity she reclassified as useful for her own goals as a professional.
Best wishes in YOUR struggles. More stories of our struggles are on the way!